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Aging Willow Run Expressway Has Served Michigan Well

Aging Willow Run Expressway Has Served Michigan Well image
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LANSING Thirty years ago, in the summer of '42, Michigan entered the freeway era. The Willow Run Expressway providing access to the sprawling Ford Motor Co. bomber plant near Ypsilanti was opened to traffic. Work was under way on the adjoining Detroit Industrial Expressway, Michigan's first limited access facility with nongrade - level intersections and no traffic lights to slow the moyément of traffic. Together, they e n a b 1 e d scores of thousands of war plant workers to drive easily from their homes to Ford's River Rouge industrial complex and to the bomber plant farther west. Millions of cars and trucks have traveled literally billions of miles over the four-lane roadway in the three decades since then. Now, the state is tearing up the aging Willow Run Expressway and building a new one to modern freeway standards. C. A. Huil Co., Inc., of Walled Lake and Cooke Contracting Co. of Detroit began work last week on an $8.84 million contract to r e c o nstruct the freewoy f r o m Haggerty Road east to Ozga Road in Romulus and build part of the big interchange with the new 1-275 Freeway, which will provide a western by-pass of Detroit. Bids are scheduled to be taken this fall for similar reconstruction west to Rawsonville Road at the WayneWashtenaw county line. Work on the stretch from Rawsonville Road west to the junction with US-12 is in the design stage. The reconstructed freeway will be six lañes wide, instead of four, and will involve some realignment along newly acquired right-of-way adjoining the existing roadway on the north. Like all modern freeways, it also will incorpórate steel reinforcement. The existing facility was built at the outset of World War II when all available steel was channeled to wartime production. sence of steel mesh is the main reason some sections of the Wiilow Run Expressway required re-surfacing. "Despite this, the Wiilow Run Expressway performed its war-time duty with great effectiveness and has served Michigan well in the intervening years," said State Highway Director Henrik E. Stafseth. "lts construction in less than a year will always stand high among the achievements of Michigan's road-builders and state highway engineers." Today, both the Wiilow Run and Detroit Industrial freeways are part of 1-94 Freeway, which runs from Port Huron west to the Indiana border at New Buffalo and on to Billings, Mont. Work on the giant project began in the f all of 1941. With the nation on the verge of war, the Wiilow Run bomber plant began to rise from the flat f armland east of Ypsilanti. It was to employ a civilian army of more than 42,000 men and women in the production of B-24 Liberator bombers for the Army Air Force. For defense purposes, the plant was located in the quiet countryside 20 miles from Detroit, the only large source of skilied labor. A major new highway was needed to enable the workers to go back and forth to their jobs and to accommodate the stream of materials and supplies that would be moving in and out of the plant. Under the leadership of State Highway Commissioner G. Donald Kennedy, the State Highway Department quickly mustered its resources with a gusto that matched the nation's all,out war effort. Nearly three-fourths of the Department's engineering personnel were assigned to the Detroit Metopolitan area. Roadbuilding firms moved in heavy equipment from every part of the state, usually staring work the day after contracts were awarded. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, bulldozers moved dirt in every direction, shapping the i earth for bridges and roadways. Pavers followed grading machinery by minutes. B y Christmas, the first two - lane roadway was opened around the plant. A pair of tri-level grade separations, two of the first in the country, were built to make it possible for workers to leave the main roads and drive directly into their parking lots. All the while, work was progressing on the $100 million bomber plant, which was to be the world's largest industrial plant under one roof and contribute substantially to Michigan's war-time role as the "Arsenal of Democracy." The spectacle was such that l thousands of sighteseers crowded into the área for a look at the mass of activities. Traffic finally had to be limited to plant and construction workers. O t h e r motorists were diverted to different [ routes. The 14-mile Willow Run Ex! pressway and access system was dedicated on Sept. 12, 1942, only 11 months after it was begun. Under Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson, Henry and Edsel Ford, Army generáis, Governor Murray D. Van Wagoner and a host of other dignitaries joined in the dedication ceremonies. The bomber plant by then was moving into full production. Before it was shut down in mid-1945, it would turn out 8,685 bombers, more than any other aircraft plant in the nation. Meanwhile, work was beginning on the Detroit Industrial Expressway, which would extend eastward for 16 miles from near Hannan Road to the Detroit boundary at Wyoming Avenue. Section by section, the DIE was opened to traffic in 1943 and 1944, with dedicatidn of the final segment taking place iri March of 1945, a few months before the war ended,_ Planners had looked ahead to peace-time, laying out the new facility as the first segment of a freeway that was to connect Detroit with Chicago. It also tied in with the planned Detroit Crosstown Kxpressway, later to be built as the Edsel Ford Freeway. "Michigan has built more than 1,400 miles of freeways since then," said Stafseth. "Because of modern standards, most are more serviceable, safe and long-lasting than the Willow Run," he said. "We can always take great pride, ho wever, in that first expressway and what it represented- a major contribution to the war effort, an engineering milestone and a forerunner of the great freeway transportation system t h a t has meant so much to the development of Michigan and the rest of the nation."


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